CHARLESTON (AP) — As an incumbent politician in corruption-ravaged Mingo County, Greg “Hootie” Smith understands the potential for voter backlash in an election.
Smith is one of the office holdovers in a county that has seen its circuit judge, prosecutor, chief magistrate and another county commissioner resign following federal convictions in the past nine months.
The May 13 Democratic primary will determine who fills the remainder of the unexpired terms. Voters also will choose a new sheriff one year after Sheriff Eugene Crum was fatally shot in a Williamson parking lot, while Smith is seeking re-election to his expired commission seat.
The election gives the county a chance to break free from the grip of corruption and the sting of the ongoing federal investigation.
“The most challenging issue that I see is having the voters make their decision on whether or not they want me to continue as their commissioner based on my actions and my record, rather than trying to judge me on the actions of others,” Smith said.
Federal prosecutors say former circuit judge Michael Thornsbury used his position to orchestrate a scheme to protect Crum from accusations of illegal drug use by keeping a campaign sign maker from talking to the FBI. Crum was killed in an unrelated shooting in April 2013.
Thornsbury and former prosecutor Michael Sparks were convicted in the corruption scheme and await sentencing set for June. Baisden was implicated but not charged. Instead, he was sentenced in an unrelated case earlier this year after authorities said he tried to get a store to sell him tires for his personal use at a government contract rate.
And former magistrate Dallas Toler was sentenced to prison in March for illegally registering a convicted felon to vote in the 2012 primary election.
“Of course, it gave the county a black eye,” said North Matewan resident Terrie Johnson. “No doubt about that.
“I prefer that we finally get a clean slate here, but that remains to be seen. They can promise you anything just to get into office. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to deliver.”
Smith said there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the county’s future, and not just because of the chance to “remove this black cloud that’s been over Mingo County for the past year.”
He pointed to a coal-to-gas plant under construction in Gilbert, a regional airport that opened in 2012, the recent groundbreaking of a National Guard armory along the Logan County border, and ongoing water-line projects in several communities.
Smith is seeking to reclaim his seat, running against former sheriff Lonnie Hannah in the Democratic primary.
Public defender Teresa McCune is among four Democrats seeking Thornsbury’s former seat. McCune said she doesn’t like hearing talk among some residents who continue to seek favors from elected officials. She used examples such as having a bridge paved near their homes or getting gravel delivered on their road.
“If that’s what people want, it’s never going to end,” she said. “There’s a long history of that sort of thing happening.”
“It’s time to get rid of this culture of special favors and behind-closed-door deals when it comes to justice. This is probably the most important election that Mingo County has ever had, because this is the chance for that culture to end,” she added.
The other candidates for circuit judge are Williamson attorney Robert Carlton, family court judge Miki Thompson and public defender Jonathan Jewell.
James Smith, who was appointed interim sheriff by the county commission after Crum’s death, will face Roy Tiller for the right to serve the remainder of Crum’s term.
In the prosecutor’s race, appointed prosecutor Teresa Maynard is up against assistant prosecutor Wes White and local attorney Charles “Butch” West for Sparks’ former job. Five candidates are seeking the magistrate’s seat formerly held by Toler.
No Republican candidates filed for the offices involving the convicted former officials, meaning the winners in the Democratic primary will run unopposed in November. The number of Democratic votes in the county’s 2012 primary outnumbered Republicans by a 10-1 margin.
“What I’d like to see is more people getting involved in our elections,” said Mike Carter, an interim county commissioner being challenged in the race for the unexpired seat by David Justice and current county clerk Jim Hatfield, a former commissioner. “People have been disheartened over how things went.”